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High Court to Review Warrantless Searches for Misdemeanors (2)

Oct. 19, 2020, 1:37 PM; Updated: Oct. 19, 2020, 8:46 PM

The Supreme Court agreed to review whether law enforcement can enter a home without a warrant in hot pursuit of someone suspected of committing a misdemeanor.

By taking the case, the justices can now “clarify the law and make sure that there is a uniform approach that governs every police officer in America,” said Elaine Goldenberg, a partner with Munger, Tolles & Olson in Washington. She’s lead counsel on an amicus brief that urged the court to take the case, filed on behalf of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

“Right now tens of millions of Americans live in jurisdictions in which pursuit of a fleeing suspect who has committed a misdemeanor automatically justifies warrantless entry into a home to which the suspect has fled,” Goldenberg said, “but the rule is different in some other parts of the country.”

The court has ruled that officers can conduct such pursuits without warrants when investigating felonies but not minor traffic violations. This case presents something in the middle: misdemeanor pursuits. The dispute will be argued later this term and likely decided by sometime in June.

Misdemeanors are “by far the most common basis for arrest,” Arthur Lange said in his petition to the justices, filed by the Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, a successful repeat player at the court. Lange was convicted of DUI after an officer followed him into his Sonoma, Calif., driveway. The officer stuck his foot under the garage door to stop it from closing and entered Lange’s garage. Lange’s motion to suppress was denied.

He wants the court to reject a categorical rule allowing such pursuits for misdemeanors, which he said in his petition “contradicts the Court’s exigent-circumstances precedent, ignores traditional common-law limits on warrantless entries, and allows officers investigating trivial offenses to invade the privacy of all occupants of a home even when no emergency prevents them from seeking a warrant.”

The case is significant on a number of fronts, said Harvard Law School professor Alexandra Natapoff, whose book on misdemeanors and the criminal justice system was cited in Lange’s petition. “It’s important because the privacy interests at stake are enormous,” she said. “It’s also extremely important because it represents the court turning its attention to an underappreciated area of criminal law enforcement that is enormous.”

Neither Lange’s lawyer, Brian Fletcher, nor the California Department of Justice would comment on the grant.

Notably, while California officials opposed high court review for reasons unrelated to the broader Fourth Amendment issue, they agreed in their opposition brief that, if the justices grant review, they should reject the categorical rule. Officials said there are “valid arguments on both sides of the question,” but, on balance, “a case-specific exigency analysis is more appropriate than a categorical rule in this context.”

The rare agreement on the central issue in the case could prompt the court to appoint a third party to argue in support of the California state court’s ruling that endorsed the categorical rule. Based on past practice, if the justices want to make such an appointment, it could follow in the coming weeks.

The case is Lange v. California, U.S., No. 20-18.

(Adds comments from Natapoff.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at sstern@bloomberglaw.com

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